Perhaps because I have done it so often, I sometimes forget that the great American road trip is a dying tradition. Some of my earliest memories are tied into those long drives from our home in the cool, tree covered hills of Western Washington to visit my grandparents on the hot, sun baked plains of Eastern Kansas. The recollections play out in my mind like a disjointed movie – a memory of our overheated Oldsmobile station wagon on a mountain pass shooting out a geyser of steam as my father adds water collected from the melting snow, an image caught through the window of a canopy on the back of our Chevy truck where my brothers, sisters and I made another trip atop a pile of blankets, and still another, when my older three siblings had been deemed too old to be forced to make the trip, where my sister Connie and I luxuriated in the spacious backseat and the air-conditioned comfort of my dad’s Delta 88. Eventually I too aged out of that particular journey, but as an adult I still embrace the road trip and have spent more than my fair share of time using the interstate to traverse the vast distances between our nation’s shores. I’ve done it probably a dozen times now and it’s become an old trick. Perhaps that was why I felt so little trepidation over using a 27 year old Nissan to do it yet again.
I’d purchased the truck sight unseen over the internet while I was still in Japan and when I finally reached it, parked in my sister’s driveway, I discovered it had as they say in the real estate game, “good bones.” I suppose that I knew somewhere in the back of my mind while I was making the purchase what I was getting by buying an older vehicle, but it wasn’t until I opened the driver’s door and was hit full in the face by the stale, musty air within that I was forced to confront what that truly entailed. For the most part, the underlying vehicle was good but there was, I soon discovered some work to do.
The engine started easily enough but the clack of an exhaust leak told me the pipes needed some attention. Likewise, the interior was surprisingly nice for the truck’s age, but the back support of driver’s seat was horribly twisted. There were other things as well, a leaking sunroof would need to be addressed, there was an odd whine from the rear differential, also, and as readers here predicted, the little MP3 to FM radio transmitter I had purchased in the hopes of saving my stock radio was a total bust, too.
Although I had toyed with the idea of taking the truck on a relatively short jaunt to San Francisco to participate in Jalopnik’s “Radwood” ’80s and ’90s car show, the issues I found were numerous enough to me cancel those plans. Fortunately, my big trip to the East coast was still a couple of weeks away and there was plenty of time to set things right. A call to Everett Nissan got me a new sunroof gasket and shortly thereafter the truck’s interior was again watertight. A visit to a local pick-and-pull netted a new driver’s seat from a Pathfinder and the next day I learned the ins and outs of auto upholstery as as I put my truck’s seat-skin, which is in fine shape, over the much nicer foam and frame I had acquired. I made more progress over the next week. I upgraded the radio to something a little more modern, had all the oil and all the fluids changed and, finally, took it into a local shop to have the exhaust and differential work done.
Of course, the shop wasn’t able to rectify the truck’s problems as easily as I thought but they did help in a number of other areas. A full tear-down and inspection of the differential, which we thought would reveal a worn pinion bearing, turned out to be nothing. The mechanics did find, however, that the rear brake cylinders were leaking so, at the very least, I had those replaced. I had the automatic transmission serviced and shock absorbers installed too, but the most annoying issue, the exhaust leak that transformed my slick, modern conveyance into a wheezing, puffing would-be steam engine, could not be fixed with a quick touch of a welding rod. I was told instead that the leak was coming from bad exhaust manifold gasket and that the shop was reluctant to handle the issue as it came too close to being “engine work.” Instead, they referred me to another local shop but by that point time was running out and I decided to get on the road without having the issue addressed.
Despite my decision to chance it, the drive East was shockingly free of drama. My nephew Spencer, who had never done a road trip, asked to tag along and so we set out according to the finest road tripping tradition, before dawn. We spent the first day cruising merrily along at or slightly above the speed limit and made our stop for the night in in Billings, MT. The next day, after crossing the continental divide and visiting Mt. Rushmore, we got as far as Wall, SD where we spent some time in one of my favorite roadside attractions/shopping malls.
The next morning we got back on the road early, but it was foggy so, after just an hour or two on the road we pulled into the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, SD while it cleared. It was an enjoyable stop and once we got back on the road the day was bright. We made it as far as Omaha before we decided to take a break. The next day we drove south to visit my step dad in St. Joseph, MO, took a side trip out to the old family homestead in Kansas where we visited the graves of my grandparents and my great grandparents before getting half way across Missouri on I-70 and ending our day near Columbia. The following day, we finished our trip across Missouri, sped across Indiana and got as far as eastern Kentucky before calling it a night. Our final day on the road, we took a “shortcut” through the mountains of West Virginia that saved some miles but cost us an extra hour or so, and pulled into to DC late in the afternoon. With that, our trip was at an end.
Spencer saw some sights here in our nation’s capitol and flew home a day later and I, because I still had some vacation time with no one to look after and nowhere to be, decided to get after the blown exhaust manifold gasket on my own. I found that the exhaust leak was not just a blown gasket but was instead the result on two broken manifold studs. After spending the better part of a day on it, I put it back together and took it to a local shop. A day or two later, I got it back fully repaired and running better than ever. It was, I think, money well spent.
In the weeks since, life has ground relentlessly on and I am using the truck mostly on weekends. Thanks to a few shots of Fabreeze and some time to dry out, the musty smell in the cab is much reduced and the truck’s interior is a pretty nice place to be. The old Nissan has even received a few compliments – one guy excitedly following me to the local recycle center so he could check it out while I unloaded my cardboard. I like those sorts of interactions and they give me hope that the old Hardbody will be a hit at local car shows once I can finally get it into one. Until then, however, the truck remains what it has always been – a working family rig. That’s what it was born to do and it’s alright with me.